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  • Sloan-Kettering
  • Written by Abba Kovner
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  • Sloan-Kettering
  • Written by Abba Kovner
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On Sale: April 23, 2009
Pages: 160 | ISBN: 978-0-307-54669-2
Published by : Schocken Knopf
Sloan-Kettering Cover

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poetry (4)
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In this luminous collection of poems, Abba Kovner records his deep engagement with life during his last days, as he lay dying of cancer in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Kovner, the famed Jewish resistance fighter who led the Vilna ghetto uprising during World War II, was also a beloved master of Hebrew literature, and his work has seldom appeared in English. This translation brings us the fierce and humble gratitude of a visionary who has been a fighter not just for himself but for a whole people, as Kovner takes up his pen to say goodbye to a precious, if flawed, world.
Weaving together his perceptions of the present moment (“How little we need/to be happy: a half kilo increase in weight,/two circuits of the corridors”); his sorrow at leaving the world (his wife knitting at his bedside, the chatter of his grandsons); the dramatic loss of his vocal cords (“Have I no right to die/while still alive?”); and memories of his heroic comrades in the Baltic forest, Kovner emerges from these pages with yet another kind of heroism. His continual movement toward freedom and his desire to give a complete account of the gift of life, even as that life is failing, make his words stirring and unforgettable.



And like that
the door opened without a click
pushing aside the shifting straw curtain
his shadow entered
followed by the man with his mane
of dark hair
a young man with
large eyes

At once
they took their places at the head of his bed
(the shadow quietly folded itself away
between the sink and the bedpans)
and with the stance of a Trappist-to-be
he declared: "The time has come.
"My time has come?" he trembled.
"That's what I said," he added
like a professional phantom.
"Where are we going, do you really know the way?"
"We are taking you there." He fell silent.
"Can I ask a question?"
"Too late."

(The swine!) "Let me take a towel,
some soap, a book?"
"Unnecessary. Anyone who enters
comes out as he went in."

At once he turned
to leave. As he went out,
trailing after him came his smell, his shadow
and his dread.


He fell asleep under strange skies

He fell asleep under strange skies.
Vaulted windows
the neo-renaissance style
of New York Hospital. Outside
the last thing his eyes took in
three chimneys a crematorium
a red-tiled roof at the back
Rockefeller University,
the medical center,
a world of vanished routines,
your home and your rooms suddenly emptied
of yesterday's light.
Abba Kovner

About Abba Kovner

Abba Kovner - Sloan-Kettering
Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol. Committed to Zionism from boyhood, Kovner was an advocate of armed resistance during World War II, famously urging his comrades in the Vilna ghetto not to go "like sheep to the slaughter," but to stand and fight. Kovner thus became a key leader in the United Partisan Organization, which carried out sabotage operations against the German army, first from the ghetto and later from the Baltic forest. After liberation, he helped take Jews from Eastern and Central Europe into Palestine for resettlement. Kovner and his wife, Vitka, also a resistance leader, eventually settled on Kibbutz Ein ha-Horesh. After taking part in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, Kovner became a writer of both poetry and prose, winning the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1970. A founder of the Moreshet Holocaust Institute and the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, Kovner died in 1987.


“A work of self-commemoration that takes the side of continuing existence . . . A book written from the dark side of alienation . . . it shimmers with the dark radiance—the stark beauty—of last things.”
—Edward Hirsch, The New York Times Book Review

“Moving . . . In these plainspoken poems . . . Kovner meditates on the possibility of heroism in the face of illness.”
The New Yorker

"Abba Kovner wrote about his impending death with a broken heart—a heart laid open to longing, to memory, to love, to the ugly details of cancer treatment. The Sloan-Kettering Poems are unsentimentally, passionately, furiously alive."
—Anita Diamant (author of Saying Kaddish, The Red Tent, and Good Harbor)

"Here is a work of art, masterfully presented."
—A.B. Yehoshua

"Abba Kovner was one of the greatest poet-fighters in the Jewish tradition. I grew up in his light, as did many of those of my generation. He was a hero to us all, and a splendid poet. To read, hear, experience the intimacy of his last months—that is something very powerful."
—Chaim Potok

"These are beautiful, stern, lacerating poems written by a genuine hero as he was dying of cancer. They detail his struggle to bear witness to the destruction of his body and the perseverance of his will and identity. It is a terrifying but superb legacy he has given us."
—Marge Piercy

"In this deeply moving collection, Kovner shows the same greatness of spirit in confronting cancer that he showed in confronting Nazis in the Vilna ghetto."
—Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People

  • Sloan-Kettering by Abba Kovner
  • May 11, 2004
  • Poetry
  • Schocken
  • $10.00
  • 9780805211450

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